/ 13 April 2018

Editorial: This spy nation urgently needs ghostbusters

Jacques Pauw has received a cease and desist letter from the State Security Agency
Jacques Pauw has received a cease and desist letter from the State Security Agency

It was surely the years spent in exile, on the run from apartheid’s spies and assassins, that engendered such a degree of paranoia in the ANC’s leadership of those years. And perhaps those years also led to the credulity of ANC leaders about to reports from their own spies and listeners — or it was that other ANC leaders were manipulating that information for their own purposes?

It is still an oddity in South African political history that, during Thabo Mbeki’s term as president, a key minister went on television to tell the nation that three senior ANC leaders were actively plotting to oust Mbeki, and not in a democratic way. Or at least that was what was implied; not much further information or evidence was ever adduced to support that view, though those politicians’ careers were stalled by the “plot” revelation. Afterwards, it looked very much as though Mbeki had taken as fact some questionable allegations made by a dodgy informer that no sensible spy chief, let alone a head of state, should have trusted or taken seriously.

In the Zuma era, South Africa became what the Mail & Guardian called a “spy nation”. There were all sorts of security, quasi-security and quasi-intelligence figures hovering about, and a range of odd “reports” from such figures that served the interests of particular powerful politicians. Jacob Zuma, having been the ANC’s own security chief for so long, no doubt played into this: he seemed to trust and rely on spies and securocrats more than he did on any of his Cabinet ministers or senior party leaders.

He came to power on the back of some shady intelligence — the eavesdropping on the phone calls of senior prosecutorial figures who were working out when to charge him with corruption. The circumstances of this eavesdropping, never mind the authorisation, are still murky, as are various other instances of intelligence operations under Zuma’s watch (and probably with his close direction).

None dealt with the kind of external threat intelligence services usually handle, and the police crime intelligence (which sheltered murder-accused operator Richard Mdluli for years, presumably with Zuma’s blessing) was unable to warn the government of, for instance, brewing xenophobic violence. All of these unintelligent “intelligence reports” were to do with internal political contestations, from the fabrication of more “plots” in the blundering fake-email saga of 2005 to the report waved on national television by Zuma last year, just before he fired the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and which he used to accuse Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas of some kind of conspiracy against him and/or South Africa.

Of course, that report of Zuma’s was never seen again. None of the details of such reports ever become clear, or only very, very seldom — and then usually because of leaks, not voluntary disclosure by government.

This is the context in which the actions of the inspector general of intelligence, Setlhomamaru Dintwe, should be seen. He went to court to prevent the intelligence director general, Arthur Fraser, from obstructing his probe into malfeasance on Fraser’s part.

Here is another rerun of the kind of situation in which the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s Robert McBride found himself — a top cop accused of wrongdoing and matters went round and round and all sorts of skullduggery came into play.

Dintwe is doing his job; the fact that Fraser is allegedly obstructing him is, surely, to any rational observer, almost an admission of guilt on Fraser’s part. He is accused of running a secret network of informers that allegedly included family members.

It looks like he spent about R1.5-billion of taxpayers’ money on this “network”, money never properly accounted for, and it’s still not entirely clear what Fraser was up to, apart from enriching family and cronies. Two probes into the case led to two reports by the previous intelligence inspector, but they have not been released to the public. Investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, who saw at least one of those reports, is clear that Fraser does not emerge well from them.

The court should certainly protect Dintwe from Fraser’s meddling, and we would go further: the institutions set up to monitor and evaluate government functions, especially secret functions such as those of spy agencies, should be subject to detailed oversight by Parliament. Technically this already happens, but too much murk and confusion is fed into the system by the spymasters reporting to institutions such as Parliament, and Parliament has for too long been acquiescent when presented with such murk.

The Mbeki and Zuma administrations happily allowed them to get away with it, but it is hoped that the Cyril Ramaphosa government will not be so sanguine about what the spooks are doing behind the scenes.

Long-established democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States have struggled to keep their secret agencies accountable. There have been several famous cases of malfeasance and illegal action on the part of security and intelligence forces — enough to make it clear that they are by no means always honourable or obedient to the civil authorities, even “in the national interest”.

In a new, still-growing and still-consolidating democracy such as South Africa’s, there is a danger of subversion of democratic institutions by secret actors. Yes, it is hard to keep spooks in line but it must be done.